It’s time to take a new look at the women who choose to have a bat mitzvah, says Rabbi Sharon Litwin, associate rabbi at Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center and director of the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy.
“It’s a fascinating demographic,” Rabbi Litwin said, noting that of the six women who celebrated their adult b’not mitzvah at the Ridgewood congregation on November 9, four were Jews by choice.
“My bat mitzvah in 1987 was a given,” Rabbi Litwin said, pointing out that women her age routinely observed the coming-of-age ceremony. Still, “it used to be, in the 1980s and 90s and maybe even until a decade ago, that an adult bar or bat mitzvah would tend to focus on people of a certain age: women old enough to have grown up when females had no ritual purpose on the bimah of any synagogue, and 83-year-old men who celebrated a second bar mitzvah, having lived 70 years since the first.”
But that seems to be changing, she said. Now, “adult b’nai mitzvah happen at many ages and for many reasons.”
“The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony isn’t a mandatory rite of passage,” Rabbi Litwin said. “By Jewish law, a boy reaches adulthood when he turns 13, and a girl 12 – no ceremony required.” Referring to the women who recently celebrated their b’not mitzvah at the shul, she suggested that “the very lack of necessity makes the effort of these six women even more remarkable as a concrete, hard-won, and public affirmation of Jewish identity and commitment.”
The women began learning more than two years ago.
“We hadn’t had an adult bar or bat mitzvah class for many years,” Rabbi Litwin said. “Two of the women came to me and said they would like one, so I said why not? Let’s see if we can get a critical mass.”
“We started with 10 people in the class,” she said, noting that she posted a message on Ravnet, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve, asking for sample curricula.
“I hadn’t taught such a class before,” she added, joking that not only did she not receive any concrete suggestions, but many of the rabbis told her that if she came up with a good plan, she should share it with them.
“The first three months, the students learned how to read Hebrew,” Rabbi Litwin continued, pointing out that several students, including two men, dropped out along the way. Of those who remained, “everyone had some sort of interfaith connection,” whether they were Jews by choice or had children or grandchildren in interfaith relationships.
“It never occurred to me that [Jews by choice] would make up the majority of the class,” she said. “They were so committed. They felt it was important to be good role models for their children, and also wanted to be able to turn around and help their children.”
“I pushed them really hard,” Rabbi Litwin said, noting that when asked what they wanted to accomplish, the students said they wanted to be able to come to synagogue services and understand what’s going on. “We started with the siddur, page by page, learning the structure, order, what the prayers mean and why they’re in that order. But I told them that they had to have this knowledge reinforced by coming to services. That really helped them. They felt more and more comfortable.”
The six students met every Monday night for nearly two hours. A year into the program, they were joined by Cantor Caitlin Bromberg, who began to teach them Torah trope.
Beginning in April, they were assigned Torah portions.
“Some of them took on long aliyot,” Rabbi Litwin said. “They were dedicated to being able to read from the Torah and learn some part of the service, whether taking out the Torah or doing Musaf. It was really important for them. They felt they were learning something meaningful. The class was inspiring to them as they grew as a community. They wanted to give honor to it.”
Sometimes the women went out after class to spend time together at a local restaurant. Last winter, they went to Rabbi Litwin’s home for a Chanukah celebration.
“There was really a community feeling,” she said.
At the service, Rabbi Litwin paid tribute to the efforts of her students, Alanna Carter, Suzanne Holden, Susan Landau, Erin Lindenberg, Linda Paige, and Tricia Schreiber.
“I am proud of them, as a class and as individuals,” she said. “I am touched by the efforts that each of them has made to be at class every Monday night for two years, with almost no exception. Alanna rented a Zipcar every week and shlepped in from New York City; Erin shifted her on-call duties as a pediatrician and mom of very young twins; Suzie made sure that Josh was home to be with their children, despite his many commitments as synagogue vice president and now president; Linda overcame her fear of public speaking and singing in public; Susan found herself more and more comfortable coming to synagogue every week; and Tricia, moved by the experience of her children’s b’nai mitzvah and living life in a Jewish family for almost 20 years, converted to Judaism last spring as a part of this journey to becoming bat mitzvah.”
According to Rabbi Litwin, the feedback from the congregation was “overwhelmingly positive. One woman, a longtime member, came up to me a week later and said this was one of most special moments we had at this synagogue.”
Rabbi Litwin said she was gratified on both a personal and a professional level to have made such an impact on both the community and the b’not mitzvah, “who were inspired to commit themselves to study and prepare for something Jewish. It was amazing. It makes my work so much more meaningful.”
Another b’nai mitzvah class will begin at the synagogue next year after the high holidays, and six members already have committed to join.